The transaction freeze has gone into effect and the junior and college squads have mostly shut down until after the World Junior Championships (WJCs) which start a week from today and conclude January 5th.
Even at this early juncture in the season, certain things are obvious. First, the rest of the NHL has separated itself from the Islanders and the Devils. Florida and Toronto at 28 points are a full 8 points ahead of the Devils and 10 points ahead of the Islanders. Teams do not usually make up that kind of ground. Add to that the fact that Toronto does not own its' pick and that Burkie will thus be moving heaven and earth to work deals to make the Leafs more competitive and it is safe to conclude that the Islanders and Devils will own the top two picks in June.
The remaining question is which team will finish on the bottom. Just two points separate the two teams after Saturday's action and the Islanders have two games in hand on the Devils. Assuming both teams received a point a game for the rest of the season, they would finish tied at 70 points apiece. Then it would come down to their head to head record. Since the Islanders have won the only meeting to date, that would put the Devils ahead for the number one pick at the moment.
There will be changes in the roster talent for both teams. Kyle Okposo and probably Josh Bailey will return next month for the Islanders and Zach Parise is due to return in early February for the Devils. Mark Streit's return date is unknown. The earliest he might return is February. My guess is that neither Mark or the Islanders will be pushing to get him back on the roster before he is completely ready. He may or may not return in time to make a real difference in the Islanders' point total.
The other changes will be in trades. Lou Lamoriello will no doubt explore trades for his aging veterans, but they all have NMCs and NTCs and may or may not agree to a deal. It is safe to say that the Islanders will be shipping Dwayne Roloson out of town. James Wisniewski and Milan Jurcina are also good bets to be moved before the deadline. Radek Martinek is a possible rental and Blake Comeau's name has been mentioned in trade rumors.
It seems likely that Garth Snow will work a deal to bring in a veteran winger in addition to possible draft picks. Simon Gagne's name has been mentioned. Both Wisniewski and Comeau currently have more points than Gagne, who had been out with a neck injury, so it is unclear if such moves would make the Islanders more competitive. Normally, however, when a team sells off talent, the immediate net effect is usually to degrade the on ice performance.
The long and short of all of this is that the Islanders and the Devils will have pole position for the top two picks. Even if the lottery does its' worst, neither team can drop more than one place. It is safe to assume, therefore, that the Islanders' first pick will be at least the number three and more likely either the number one or two.
That leaves the question of who the Islanders should select assuming that they do have the number one pick. If Garth Snow trades away Wisniewski and Jurcina and gets back Gagne, that would suggest that Garth and Co might be leaning toward defensive prodigy Adam Larsson. Of course, conventional wisdom is that you draft the Best Player Available (BPA) regardless of need. Who is the BPA right now?
The Islanders probably are not interested in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins however talented he may be. They need more size and that is something that you cannot teach. That narrows the field to Larsson, two way center Sean Couturier, and tough gritty power forward Gabriel Landeskog who deserves extra points for the marketing potential of his name (Welcome to the Land of Landeskog!).
It would be great if there is a blogger who follows the Swedish Elite League (SEL) and is familiar with Larsson's play this year. What I can tell you superficially is that Larsson has been held to 1-7-8 in 28 GP. He has also had rather limited ice time compared to teammates and 2009 draftees Tim Erixon (Calgary) and David Rundblad (St. Louis traded to Ottawa at the 2010 draft). Their stats are much higher than his as well. Last month Redline dropped him down to #4 behind Couturier, Nugent-Hopkins, and Landeskog in descending order.
Couturier's and Landeskog's stats are roughly comparable. Through 32 GP for both, Couturier is 16-36-52 and Landeskog is 25-20-45. Given that Couturier is the center and Landeskog the power forward, it makes sense that Couturier would have higher assist totals and Landeskog higher goal totals.
How are the Islanders assessing the three? No way to know that, of course, and the WJCs are a key marker in deciding between two prospects who a scouting staff assesses as relatively close to each other. Assuming that the Islanders have these three pretty close together, a really strong performance by one of them could make the difference in who the team picks. As I have noted before, John Tavares and Nino Niederreiter were the two most dominant players at the last two WJCs and they both became Islander draft picks. Coincidence? Probably not entirely.
It is possible, of course, that the Islanders have already decided which of these three they will select if they have the number one pick. Garth Snow claimed to have decided on Tavares prior to the 2009 WJCs. I suspect, however, that a standout performance by one of the three may influence the Islanders' choice.